The same week that LIFE.com launches the “most comprehensive photo experience available online,” Brooklyn-born photographer Helen Levitt died in her Manhattan apartment at the age of 95. A high school drop out, Levitt became interested in photography after getting a job for a commercial photographer in the Bronx and taught herself the techniques. In her wake, she left a legacy of some of the most beautiful photographs of New York City.
While documenting Socialist and Communist activities in during the Great Depression era, Levitt was exposed to the work of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and had the revelation that her work could be considered “art”. Her rise to fame began with black-and-white photos of working class children in the 1930s and 40s; by focusing on the city’s poorer neighborhoods, Levitt was able to capture a cinematic romanticism about life in New York. The city was her most frequent muse throughout her long and sporadic career, and her pioneering work solidified her place among the most influential American photographers.
Many have emulated Levitt’s poetic style, snapping shots of life-in-action on the streets of one of the world’s most recognizable cities. Instead of focusing on the glamorous elite, Levitt captured the raw humanity in the lives of the poor in areas like the Lower East Side and Spanish Harlem. She told The New Yorker in 2001, “I wanted to be a photographer because I wanted to be an artist and I couldn’t draw.” We should be grateful for that inability because it prompted the birth of an aesthetic that changed the way photographers uncover beauty in the world’s most unforgiving places.